Suicide: Let’s Start with #howru

An earlier abridged version of this post has been replaced by this complete one since 24/8/2016 3PM.

Dedicated to Tiffany and all those close to our hearts who’ve left us

When I was Year 4, a friend extremely dear to me became increasingly distant and intentionally so. She avoided messages, shunned company and often gave cold responses to our attempts at a conversation. The hurt was real, for us (her friends) and for her. Eventually, we decided to give her the space she fought with us for – we called her out to the movies less, spent less time with her in class and let time ease the detachment. On a fateful afternoon that I still remember vividly, I had just caught “Finding Nemo in 3D” at the Cathay Cineleisure theatres with a friend. We were laughing, arms linked and I had an empty popcorn box in the other hand. The high we were in dropped to an immediate low when we found almost 50 unread messages on each of our phones from our friend. The multiple messages said the same thing – “I’m so sorry”. Our hearts dropped. The frantic hours that followed; calling everyone we knew could have been in contact with her, crying, the sense of loss and regret, and more crying are all fuzzy memories for us today. Perhaps, the height of fear so traumatic that the mind has buried it deep in our subconscious for self-care.

Thankfully, this friend remains a good one today, closer than many others and this episode is still etched in our hearts. The close shave with death and the one choice that almost made all the difference though, is one that I am familiar with. In my years in the Raffles Program, I have heard about or known of at least one suicide in every two years. Even upon graduation, heartbreaking news as such continue to spread across the school population like wildfire. While the following anecdotes are drawn from the school context, though, I wish to qualify that this trend is observed nationwide and is in no way, unique to the Rafflesian context though one might be tempted to draw flawed causal relations so as to detach oneself from the fear-inducing reality that suicide is a choice that anyone has the power to make. This morning, it is pouring heavily outside and the bus inches forward as if intentionally buying me time to think. This piece is on the suicides we don’t talk about enough and the lessons we are learning, but a little too slowly.

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli introduces the Confirmation Bias within the first 5 chapters and labels it the “father of all fallacies” and the “mother of cognitive biases”. The Confirmation Bias is the tendency to selectively intake information to support existing theories and perceived patterns we have identified. It is our means of protecting our minds from the complexity of this world we live in and it helps us make sense of our everyday stimulus. It is dangerous though, to apply it in some occasions. In Year 2, when I heard of the first suicide in school, it was my first encounter with such news. Naturally, I formulated the belief that such incidents were singular and anomalous – how else could we explain the hundreds of others going through similar phases in life who choose otherwise and live on to the next day? How else might I rationalize this terrifying choice that the individual had made? An exception, it had to be.

In the growing up years, news of suicides spread more often than rumours of depression. The surprise that follows the knowledge of the suicide is accompanied by statements like, “Wow, no one could tell.” Or “Who knew?” and “We could never have seen that coming.” Never. In RGS, the culture of giving, the ‘tradition’ of sending encouraging messages around whenever an exam was near and the kindness initiatives by the Peer Support Board led me to be puzzled about how an environment like this could allow the incubation of suicidal thoughts. I continued to affirm my belief that these incidents were anecdotal so as not to confront the alarming paradox. Then, in RI, we are so often told to be thankful for our privilege, taught by the public that expression of negative emotions is an indication of weakness or a lack of gratitude. We are convinced that our material possessions or tangible achievements are the only valuable assets and there is nothing more we could ask for – our understanding of value is warped thereon.

What you teach is what you get. Our haste in pointing fingers at the flaws from within the school are oblivious to the fact that we are all part of the picture that completes the reality for students within – newspaper articles that blow up anecdotes and draw inaccurate causal relations between these incidents with “being in an elite school”, relatives who say “you’re from Raffles, can one lah” or worse, those who transform the very identity of being a Rafflesian into a label synonymous with expectations of achieving – the blessing and the curse of being in the institution is the result of these external factors beyond the school’s control. The lack of empathy embedded in this culture that goes beyond the four walls of the institution has silenced the unhappiness and concealed the symptoms. “Good,” is the only acceptable answer to “How are you?”

In my final months in Junior College, I struggled a lot with insomnia. There were countless of sleepless nights, heart thumping episodes and indescribable anxiety. It was in the company of a close friend that I visited our school counsellor for the first time. Following which, the visits were followed up with messages that showed consistent and reliable support from the counsellor and comfort from the knowledge that I could always seek help where I needed. Friends who knew I had seen the counsellor also showered me with hugs and daily words of affirmation. With the benefit of hindsight, I could reaffirm my decision to visit him. Admittedly though, there was hesitation before letting anyone know that I was going to the counsellor at that point. It was as if I would be admitting to something being very wrong with me; some kind of problem I couldn’t resolve. I silenced myself for fear of judgment.

Herein lies the problem. There is a stigma – against those who extrovert their feelings of negativity and those who externalise their struggles. It is ironic that while everyone knows that life is an oscillating narrative (one that has downs as much as it has ups), we only listen with most empathy at the part where “life is a bed of roses”. One would expect that with our understanding of the value of a human life, we would protect it at all costs; but how ‘acceptable’ is getting help and how much do we encourage the most powerful forms of suicide prevention in the society that we are all a part of creating? Did you know that as of 2015, Singapore has seen an average of 400 suicides every year (from 2010-2014) on top of another 1000 cases of attempt suicides? Of which National Statistics show that the bulk of the cases come from young adults aged 20-29 years (2015), and the numbers for youth suicides have recently reached a 15-year high. Let every news of suicide be remembered; let us not brush off every individual’s choice as an ‘exception’ or ‘anomalous’. It is not okay that the choice to take one’s life is this prevalent and there must be something we can do as individuals:

1 Let us all inherently matter as human beings: the prizes, achievements, the trophies and tangible outcomes, the ‘paper chase’ and grades are but a fraction of our being. Dr Chia Boon Hock, a psychiatrist specialising in suicide, said the faster pace of life, coupled with the fact that those aged between 20 and 29 “expect a lot and want a lot more”, contributed to the higher number of suicides. Perhaps, the true challenge is to pass the initial judgment of a person’s achievements and to learn the virtues, beliefs and character that make the rest of the person. If we let these matter proportionally, we might just encourage all around us to strive for a more balanced gauge of self-worth.

2 Let it be okay to not be (okay). The most heartbreaking of all that underlies suicides is not only the aftermath of loss with no return, but also the unimaginable sense of isolation that had paved the way for such a choice. My favourite poem on Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox amplifies the loneliness that we experience from our day-to-day because we don’t embrace not being okay enough. Give praise to the courage of those who seek professional help from counsellors and talk openly about difficulties and unhappiness. The truest test of empathy is at a friend’s lowest point.

3 Spread the word – my younger self did not see the prevalence of suicide simply because it was yet to be a normal occurrence in my sphere of knowledge and it is only when you brush past this terrifying experience of loss over and over that you see the magnitude of the choice and the gravity of the issue. I would like to propose that we transform the deep sense of loss into motivation to raise awareness about its prevalence and on its prevention*. Be part of World Suicide Prevention Day Singapore 2016.

*The 24-hour Samaritan of Singapore hotline is 1800-221 4444.

The apathy that is encapsulated in some familiar consolation (“life goes on” or “the institution will do something about it” because “the system is at fault”) is indicative of our increased desensitization. Perhaps, it is to protect ourselves for we would otherwise feel helpless. But in this case, where we are the very agents of change and prevention, it is imperative that we try. Let’s start with #howru.

I invite you to share your thoughts with me, if any at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg.

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Scholars: So what?

Scholars - So what

Counting down the days before my new internship begins at the Early Childhood Development Agency (a regulatory and development authority for the early childhood sector in Singapore, jointly overseen by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social and Family Development), a fraction of this month has been dedicated to a series of workshops and courses as part of the Ministry of Health Holdings‘ Induction Program for Healthcare scholars. Every experience carefully designed to prepare scholars for the journey ahead, offering insight about Singapore’s healthcare system while encouraging us to forge friendships with fellow scholars. Thankful for this privilege, this piece is one about the sense of disconnect I wish to fend myself against and one to serve as a reminder of what this opportunity should mean for me.

Days ago, a return to my alma mater found meaningful conversations with some of the most nurturing educators I have had. I have missed these exchanges incredibly, for they represent our mutual agreement to pursue truth. In one such conversation our Year 4 Form Teacher, Mr. Faizal, expressed his exasperation and almost disillusionment towards students pursuing achievements rather than valuing process, obsessing over themselves and forgetting the larger community around them. He highlighted that the choices we, as the more privileged in society, have had at every point of our lives are those of the minority – to be discussing the scholarship options and university choices rather than questioning the possibility of entering university; to be enjoying the freedom that a quality education allows for instead of suffering the anxiety that a financial burden can cause. With every choice that allows us to enter an even more exclusive pool of ‘talent’, he fears the sense of disconnect from the rest of society that we fall victim to. Being a scholar is one such choice.

There is no purpose in the blame game of who has allowed for the flaws of this system to be as such and no meaning in pointing fingers at ‘meritocracy’ for ironically, allowing those who’ve lived immensely different lives from the rest of the population to end up at leadership positions and managerial roles. Our awareness of this privilege and difference should, instead, translate into a heightened sense of responsibility to meet the needs of society. In short, ‘noblesse oblige’.

I recall vividly the Managing Director’s words at our first gathering as a batch of scholars. “The scholarship is not about money,” he said, “it is not a study loan and much less an entitlement. It is the use of public taxpayer’s money to train a selected pool of people.” It is the investment that the country has made based on the consensus that we shall have those with the potential to perform most effectively for public good to afford the training and education that they require. It is the means to an end, which is service to public good. Just yesterday, lapses in enforcement of scholarship bonds made the headlines on Channel News Asia. Reports had found that the Ministry of Education had not maintained necessary monitoring measures to ensure the enforcement of scholarship bonds, and henceforth failed to ensure that tuition fee loans and study loans due were promptly recovered. What is more appalling than the inadequacy of regulations is the prevalence of scholars who default or ‘break bond’. The Ministry is careful to qualify that these scholars are a minority, but the only acceptable number to this profile of scholars should be ‘zero’. Following the stern definition of what the scholarship should be, the Managing Director said to “bear in mind that (we) have arrived at this position not solely by (our) own effort… There is a moral obligation to give back to the society that has nurtured (us).”

Exceptions made due to our unforeseen circumstances aside, there must be emphasis made on the fact that resources invested into funding scholarships are exhaustive and zero-sum. The place taken by one to have his/her further education sponsored by the public’s trust that he/she will return to serve public good denies another from this same opportunity. The rigorous selection, followed by the generous investments can mislead one to believe that you have proven yourself worthy of these entitlements. There is danger in viewing our privilege to be scholars as an entitlement, for the intentions of our signing on the dotted line will be clouded by self-centredness and rid of gratitude.

You’re special but you’re not. Due credit given to the ‘potential’ that we have displayed, little of this potential would matter if we prove to be, ultimately, irresponsible to our commitment towards public good. The most valuable takeaway from the Induction Program commitments this July has been the reminder that the heart of service should be at the centre of a scholars’ commitment – to dedicate our ‘special’ to being part of something larger, something that is not an end in ourselves. Congratulations to my fellow peers who have been given the privilege of service to the nation and the freedom to pursue excellence with financial burdens aside, don’t forget: auspicium melioris aevi.

The Healthcare Scholars’ Pledge

I am a healthcare scholar.

Patients shall be at the centre of everything I do.

I will perform my duties with integrity and pride.

I will care for my patients with compassion and respect. 

I will work with my fellow care-givers with humility and grace.

I commit to excel as a Healthcare Professional.

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The Amber Light

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Exactly one week to my Driving Traffic Police Test, this evening is air-conditioned, one spent on board Bus 106. Travelling down these roads I can memorise by heart and taking a route on which I have shared memories with so many, this 45-minute bus ride is always conducive for writing. (How certain I am, by the way, that this is a ride I will miss dearly along with the Singapore public transport system once in Sydney). In light of the friends close to heart whom I’ve gotten the chance to catch up with recently, this piece is in celebration of the cross junction we are at in our lives – where we leave “Holiday Road” for the journey ahead along “University Drive”. If there were a traffic light at this cross junction, it would probably be faulty for it signals a perpetual amber.

How strange it is that time should pass us by like water through our fingers – with no way of gripping onto moments that have passed, only granted with the feeling it gave us as proof that it had come and gone. “Where did all the time ago?” is the new frequently-asked question and it feels like yesterday that we had embraced the new normal of liberation. I can vividly remember how most of us had bid farewell to the episode we call “’A’ Levels” as if it happened just a while ago.

At this point, even with our University places secured, some privileged with scholarships or sponsorships and with a break we had been dreaming of since our time in Junior College, the uncertainty has only reduced but not disappeared. As if driving in a vehicle that has left an expressway (that was the comfort of school), towards new crossroads that have emerged, new road signs, traffic lights (few faulty ones) and bumps in the road. One of the most heart-wrenching moments in my first few driving lessons were what I’d like to call The Amber Light moments. You’re slowing down nearing a traffic light, prepared to stop if necessary. A more experienced driver (clearly, judging from the speed and his frustration towards your amateur ‘L-plate’) comes close behind you, as if ready to send death threats should you stop at the junction to even think. Then, The Amber Light. There is no clarity from the structures put in place – no green to say a definite ‘yes’ or a red that says ‘no’. Just Amber. It is entirely up to your “driving judgment” as my Chinese driving instructor calls it.

The resources invested and the opportunities available, your driving decisions the only uncertain factor to determine the outcomes. This pressure is familiar to us, seems like it’s going to take a little more than a little bit of reframing to get us past this cross junction with confidence. I learn from adult mentors I have been incredibly blessed to have found that the road ahead carries endless adventure and our fear will be as big an obstacle as we allow it to be. My dad always says, that sometimes, “you just have to press hard on that accelerator and drive on”.

Counting down the weeks before most of my peers enter the new chapter we call “University”, may this be reminder to us to stay true to the values of resilience and verve that we had lived and breathed in school. Never settle for less.

Uncertainty: What Would Dory Do?

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For the past 6 months, I have had the privilege of serving patients in the capacity of a “Patient Service Assistant” at the Raffles Hospital Rehabilitation Centre through the Frontline Service Experience Program. Tomorrow as I step into the workplace once more, I would be counting down the last two days in the space that has now become comfortable, familiar and filled with countless memories. The ‘normal’ will begin to evolve from the (upcoming) Tuesday evening when I step out of the Rehabilitation Centre, changing out from uniform for the last time. Henceforth, I plunge into a month of uncertainty – attempts at driving tests, attendance at scholarship commitments and a series of talks, plays, workshops and museum visits to enrich myself. The ‘normal’ that lies ahead holds surprises and prized experiences valuable for me. And yet, I am slightly nervous amidst my excitement.

The anxiety finds its origins in the uncertainty. This uncertainty is one that years of formal education have made me uncomfortable with. I wish someone told me this before. This time last year, with the end of Common Test 2, there was celebration and contained happiness. ‘Contained’ because we were all aware of how short-lived this break would be – just a time to catch a breather before proceeding towards months of closed-door studying, endless practice and mastery of exam skills. Then, one of my biggest motivations had been the ‘freedom’ that would necessarily follow this ‘‘A’ Levels episode’. “Things would be different then,” I had promised myself. Perhaps it was the desperate hope for space, for rest, to be away from the routine that had made us naïve and clouded our judgment. To my juniors who are treading the path I had trodden a year ago, the ‘freedom’ and ‘change’ is real, I still promise. But be careful to associate only negative feelings to your current mundane routine and only positive feelings to what the future may hold – this narrative you tell yourself may translate into disappointment. Nothing is only good or only bad.

I have seen the past half a year of uncertainty incite very real fear and anxiety; in myself and in my peers. It seems some have spent more time worrying than enjoying. Granted, there are those who thrive in this context but fact remains that our years of formal education have dished out ‘Scheme of Works’ and ‘Syllabus Outcomes’ as checklists to determine ‘success’. Additionally, formal education has paved the way with assessments and lecture tests to ensure timely milestones of ‘progress’. Thrown into this uncertainty, the meters of ‘success’ and ‘progress’ are to be determined by ourselves. I wish someone told me this before. The reminder that in every challenge we can discover some form beauty came this time last year as I was struggling to prepare myself for the ‘A’ Levels – I was reminded to appreciate the protection of a school environment, to be thankful for the community of learners I could find effortlessly in a school I call home and to savour the uphill battle of challenging my own academic limits. Today, the weekend before I welcome a new wave of uncertainty, this same idea is revisited.

One of the best movies I have watched in the preceding month for Digital Detox was Finding Dory. Pixar does it again, encapsulating important lessons in animation. A recurring line in the script was “what would Dory do?” which (in my opinion) represented a two-fold message. One was the intended lessons to be taken away from Dory’s character – the sense of adventure, the fearless risk-taking and the willingness to take chances. After all, “the best things happen by chance, because that’s life.” Coming to terms with uncertainty is not easy because we have to acknowledge that little we do today can guarantee us something tomorrow, as much as we wish that these promises can be kept. Mistakes can be made, people can be forgotten, memories can slip past us and words can be empty. A university graduate could very well be jobless and we could change our minds about what we hope to study in the middle of our degree programs. The uncertainties are endless and it is the presence of them that is the only promise that can absolutely be kept. How ironic, that our only certainty is the lack of. The sooner that we embrace this uncertain adventure, the earlier might we discover ourselves truly and forgive ourselves for what we cannot achieve in society’s definition of ‘success’.

Second to that, in this two-fold message is the idea that there is value in seeing things differently. In the movie, Dory’s fearlessness as a result of her ‘disability’ (short-term memory) is applauded. There are debates within the online community about Dory’s predicament representing that of persons with disabilities in society – that her ‘difference’ by birth leaves her in a disadvantaged position in the community, even considered ‘less valuable’ than others. This explains the intuitive anger and irritation towards her from Marlin, during their search for Dory’s parents. Parallel to our society, these are common perceptions of persons with disabilities that form the basis for society’s general sympathy or ostracism towards this community. We think them so different because their productivity to society is compromised. Similarly, we put greater emphasis on applauding the achievements of people with disabilities when they do productive things “despite disability”. Recall the articles about students with disabilities completing the ‘A’ Level examinations and think about the celebrity motivational speaker Nick Vujicic. Our conversations have, for so long, been about how persons with disabilities can ‘overcome’ their disabilities as if they were a problem because they hindered their productivity to society. I reckon it might be time to shift the conversation to answer questions about why it is so difficult for persons with disabilities to be valued in society. What does that show about how we value ourselves and each other? And are we okay with that?

An inspiring role model to me recently reminded me that we should not base our worth on our productivity to society and rather, recognize that we all have inherent value as human beings solely based on the persons that we are. Hoping that embracing this understanding will allow me to accept the uncertainty of what lies ahead, here’s to a hell of ride from this Tuesday on.

 

The Coming Jobs War

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“What everyone in the world wants is a good job,” wrote the Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton in his book titled The Coming Jobs War. I recall this read from my years in Junior College – Clifton wrote of the inevitable ‘war’ waged between countries to create the most fulfilling and relevant jobs for people to commit to in their lives. According to Gallup’s World Poll, 3 out of 7 billion people want a good job and there are only 1.2 billion jobs to go around. The short-fall of 1.8 billion jobs is at the heart of the emerging war – the challenge is one faced not only by governments but by entire nations, for the responsibility to create and fill up new jobs lies in the hands of all whose survival is dependent on the nation’s economic development.

The reality painted by Clifton was one where old jobs continually disappear while new ones emerge gradually with entrepreneurship. In light of this ever-changing landscape, the importance of flexibility and lifelong learning is amplified, putting things into perspective for me since the Junior College days.

On Flexibility

At the recent Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) admissions exercise, there was a short essay-writing component where candidates chose a question out of three given options to write about in 30 minutes. One of which quoted PM Lee saying, “We will put more weight on job performance and relevant skills, rather than starting qualifications,” in the National Day Rally Speech of 2014. The issue at hand, then, was the pros and cons of having university degree programmes and how we might judge workers based on qualifications rather than on-the-job performance.

Perhaps, for too long, our system of meritocracy has embedded a form of inflexibility in our association of capability to qualification, overlooking the intangible aspects of job performance shaped by our work attitudes. The discipline, accountability, respect and verve with which we perform our jobs can rarely be captured in a qualification or certification of any sort. Yet, these are the defining characteristics of truly capable workers who do a good job – those with intrinsic motivation to do what they do, who feel deeply fulfilled by their jobs and who are more likely to ride on the waves of greater job satisfaction when given affirmation.

The recent SIT essay-writing exercise, in this time of transitioning into the workforce, was a good reminder for our flexibility in work attitude to supersede our preoccupation with qualifications.

On Lifelong Learning

In a Medical Symposium earlier last year, I had the privilege of listening to Singapore’s ‘wandering saint’, Dr. Tan Lai Yong, share his experiences in China and views on healthcare/social work. A brief statement about his wife who, then, applied to go back to University for further studies as the oldest student in her course was one of the most memorable statements for me from his presentation.

The rigid idea of what must happen at every phase of one’s life as a “successful Singaporean” seems to me, to be perpetuating the stigma against lifelong learning. The institutions and policies set in place will be futile without our gradual mindset change. I prefer to think that with the uncertainty of the future and the possibility of my change of heart in my career aspirations, there is always the option of relearning knowledge or of picking up new skills.

Five months on from our ‘A’ Level examinations, this has been a transition to independence and making sense of young adulthood. Following the results release, this month in our rite of passage is one characterized by university and scholarship applications, as well as interviews – thought it was a timely reminder to put the reality of our job market in sight and to remind us of the intangibles that will truly matter on top of our decisions at this point.

May the short-term rush to make decisions not distract us from how these choices define our long-term attitudes. Then, may we emerge victors in the coming jobs war.

What Grades Cannot Grade

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Some say the question should not be, “what do you want to study?” but “what is the change you want to be?” or “what do you want to do for others?”. Answer the last two questions, and then work backwards to what logical steps you might take at this point with the choices you’re meant to make. Looking at the big picture helps, but the uncertainty remains and makes what we call “our future” indefinitely fuzzy – you can’t be sure when you might change your mind or what revelations you may make in time to come. The learning and experiencing never stops: we may never be sure and that’s okay. This piece is in reflection of what the recent result release has meant for me, 8 days from d-day and counting.

This week began with following a friend to the “Retaking ‘A’ Levels” Sharing by the Thought Collective, a gathering of about 30 odd people in The Red Box that they also refer to as “repeat night”. Taking turns to share their stories of resilience, I could only imagine the feelings of loneliness, abandonment, humiliation and disappointment that these individuals had withstood in face of their results and a society that judges the people we are, based on the grades we receive. “I have lived with the stigma of being a ‘failure’ ever since” and “My parents didn’t speak to me for two weeks, I had disappointed them.” – Can you imagine? Who should ever deserve to judge themselves or by others to be ‘failures’? Never, regardless of grades. In an essay I recently peer evaluated for a friend, she expressed her criticism to the system that teaches us to judge one another and ourselves based on grades: “You can never grade ambition, sense of adventure and creativity”, she wrote. Growing up with excellent results more often than not, I liked to think that I was special. I was taught to believe that the future that lay ahead of me was bright because of my grades and that the relation between the two was closely-knit. I was taught, also, to credit myself for the achievement of the results – the results themselves rather than the values that I exemplified in pursuit of those grades. But as tears welled up in my eyes just listening to these individuals’ stories of bravery, I am reminded to attribute every person’s strength to what is within them instead of their external achievements. Each and every one of them were stronger for the choices they had chosen to make in times of crisis, that made them special. And then, what is truly in a grade is more than what the grades themselves can show us.

Allow me to qualify myself. I do value the strengths of a meritocracy: my share of non-fiction reads by renowned economists (Michael J. Sandel and Joseph Stiglitz, amongst others) allows me to understand the economic sense that a meritocracy makes. Ensuring that the best people for the jobs are rewarded the suitable opportunities accordingly, our economic development in modern history certainly has our religious belief in meritocracy to thank. That, though, is part of Singapore’s success story and so is the association of grades to value. In this time when we internalize our ‘A’ Level results and decide what it means for us, the decisions we make should be designed to create our own success story and no one else’s.

I’m just saying: I think grades should just be grades (as in, the assessment of our performance in a one-off trial at proving a set of knowledge). It is a race against ourselves to be better than we were and to be the best that we can be. Where these intentions have been met, the grades should proudly stand as proof of that.

Every year, there are 1200 private candidates retaking their ‘A’ Levels. This excludes the many others who courageously go back to their schools to retake JC2. We have had 40 years of the ‘A’ Levels private candidature system, which makes 48, 000 individuals who ‘fall through the cracks’, facing self-doubt, the sense of being trapped and excluded for their grades. Imagine that. Tonight, I am on a long bus ride that brings back many memories for this is the route that I took home for years while studying in RGS. One of my best lessons from my alma mater was exactly this – to value people for their verve and passion, the causes they believed in and the convictions they stood for. These are what make people people and it is with this understanding that our regard for one another becomes humane.

Straight ‘A’s or Not: Make Peace

 

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Hands cold, sweaty palms, heart thumping; butterflies in our stomach and wild thoughts beginning with “what if…” running through our minds – seated in the Multi-Purpose Hall, Mr. Chan’s run-through of our “record-breaking” statistics were just numbers. The applause at our collective results served no consolation, I had to remind myself to just breathe. I had imagined for myself what results release would be like countless times, every time going through the same prep talk (“this doesn’t define you”); but at that point, my mind was blank.

Two days on from the release of results, stories commending the mental strength of fellow peers who pulled through ‘A’ Levels flood my Facebook News Feed. These stories bring to the spotlight peers who struggled with various disabilities amidst the ‘A’ Levels, each inspiring in their own way and deserving of our respect and admiration. This piece, though, is for the able-bodied peers – no disadvantage of having to take special care of health, no misfortune of distraction from home, none of that. Rather, the mixed emotions from our column of grades find themselves from a very different origin that many may fail to understand. “Good enough already, be thankful.” – you don’t understand.

For us who are fortunate to have sufficient resources, a safe home and a healthy body, the emotional stress is indescribable and it is exactly because of this privilege. When the circumstance in which you were prepared for the exam is the best anyone could ask for, the only explanation for slips in grades become us, as individuals. Today I speak for those who are disappointed with their grades, some of whom are made to feel ashamed of their disappointment, which some perceive to reflect a lack of gratitude. “At least you can get into university…” is no consolation, it is an awful lack of empathy. The birth of the disappointment lies in the gap between “what it could be” and “what it is”. The tension between the two is where the suffering lies and we create for ourselves the standards of “what it could be” – understand that and then, you can offer consolation.

My friends, you have done well. Remember the late nights studying, the consults through the holidays, the revision lectures and the after-school study groups? The hard work put in has done justice to our capability and the grades must not invalidate any of it. We’ve done what we can. Where the disparity between “what it could be” and “what it is” exists, cry and be disappointed, it is only natural. I can offer no consolation to the reality where efforts do not necessarily translate into (tangible) results – you deserved better for what you had put in. Above all, though, remember you are not your grades. Your value as a person and a learner goes far beyond what the column of grades may tell others: scholarship boards and admission officers that fail to judge holistically will be at the losing end.

I have found myself at the front of classrooms often – as a student care teacher, when running the ‘Imagining Possibilities: Cats in Hats’ initiative, rolling out our Youth Corps local project with Lakeside Family Services and in tutoring in the UPstars program. Time and again, I have championed the belief in the potential of the young regardless of academic grades. There is irony in our conviction about separating the value of a person from how they do in school when nurturing others, but being so hard on ourselves when we look at our own. Perhaps, it is the tyranny of expectations that creates the discrepancy.

Dear you, the value of you has not changed one bit in the eyes of all who truly love you. The only thing that has changed is your own view of yourself. People tend to underestimate how deeply you may experience disappointment and try to convince you it shouldn’t be how you feel. But only you can truly decide that for yourself – the disappointment is real and so is this reality. Nevertheless, the amazing things you have once done (the late nights studying, the consults through the holidays, the revision lectures and the after-school study groups) besides this silly exam are all real. The grades are a measure of how you performed on that one day, in that one exam and not of anything else. You’re okay. Love, yourself.

Lesson for this episode – to forgive ourselves.

P.S. I hope you’re not about to drop a comment or slip me a message telling me how to feel, because then you might have missed the whole point of this piece.

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